Thursday, October 10, 2019

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire

The Sentinel, or, odd things in churches (12)
In 1671, the justices of Oxford ordered all parishes in the county to keep a fire engine. This one is a survivor from that period – or at least from the 18th century – and is thought to have been made by Richard Newsom or Newsham of Cloth Fair, London.* Nowadays the church seems an odd place to keep a fire engine, but in the 17th ands 18th centuries it made a lot of sense. Everyone knew where the church was, it would probably have been left unlocked (or the key holder would be widely known), and churches were often, though by no means always, in the middle of the village. In any case there were few alternatives in most parishes: the church was the only public building. So fire engines, consisting basically of a handful-operated pump and tank on wheels, were often stored in churches, along with other equipment, such as metal hooks on long poles that were used to pull burning thatch off roofs.

Church records often show expenditure on maintaining a fire engine. At Hook Norton there’s also a record of money paid to buy a fire hook for the village. One wonders how effective these devices would have been. But in isolated rural parishes there was little alternative to whatever basic aid the locals could give. And in many places that no doubt involved a few men and a hand pump. This one at Hook Norton, known apparently as the Sentinel, was still in use in the 1890s. Now it seems to be used mainly as a stand for leaflets and hassocks. But at least it is still there, along with a fire hook and bucket, glowing resplendently red after a restoration a few years ago.

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* This engineer made a similar fire engine in Wiltshire that I’ve come across previously.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

Domes and silk stockings

I make occasional trips to Somerset and sometimes, having left the house early, stop off for a coffee somewhere en route. Bridgwater is one of my occasional stopping places. To some, it’s an unassuming town with a rather nondescript High Street, but there are plenty of architectural discoveries to be made (one of the best early Georgian streets in Britain, a Victorian concrete house) for anyone prepared to look. This building, with its square dome, is a landmark at one end of the town and it quickly caught my eye. ‘An early-20th century theatre,’ I thought to myself, and I was partly right. What was originally the Empire Theatre opened in 1916 with a performance of a play called A Pair of Silk Stockings. But the venue showed movies as well, making it one of the first wave of cinemas in Britain, a wave that was turning into a steady stream by 1916, as more and more people began to want to see ‘moving pictures’.*

If some of the very first purpose-built cinemas were rather anonymous-looking buildings with little to identify them apart from large boards for posters advertising what was showing, some adopted a theatrical look, or were indeed converted theatres or dual-purpose buildings like the Palace. Already, some people were starting to realise that a showy or glamorous looking facade with features like the Palace’s tower and dome, and its round window, decorative swags, and classical pilasters, helped draw the eye and bring in the customers.† A good 700 people per screening were accommodated in the interwar period, followed by many members of the armed forces when it became an ENSA venue during World War II.¶ But afterwards it was less successful, as going out to a film was steadily replaced by staying in and watching television. After a long period unused in the 1980s and 1990s, the Palace became a night club, like many of its kind. It may look a little dishevelled, but it’s still an eye-catcher.

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* Britain’s first cinema opened in London’s Regent Street in 1896. By 1909 the wave was starting to break, with cinemas in places as diverse as Birmingham and Colwyn Bay.

† It was said originally to have been in the Moorish style; I wonder if that means the interior. The outside seems solidly Classical.

¶ ENSA: Entertainments National Service Association, set up to provide entertainment for members of the forces during the war.

Saturday, September 28, 2019


Gigantic Leeds (3)

In his book Historic Architecture of Leeds, Derek Linstrum begins his entry on this building with the words, ‘One of the best-known exceptions to the rule of simple functional buildings for industry is Temple Mills.’ Which is true, though it doesn’t tell the whole story. Little could be further from the usual functional brick walls and repeating rows of regular windows of the normal Victorian textile mill than this facade, with its slightly sloping walls, massive columns with papyrus or lotus capitals, and winged solar discs. It’s riding a wave of the ancient Egyptian revival, and it’s the work of Joseph Bonomi, who came from Durham but had Italian ancestors on his father’s side. That father, also Joseph, was an architect, and there was a brother, Ignatius, who was a prominent architect too. The young Joseph was better known as an artist and Egyptologist. He would have been familiar with the temple at Edfu, on which the facade of Temple Mills was based. Massive and weatherbeaten, his building is one to stop you in your tracks, and no doubt the mill’s owner, John Marshall, wanted to make just such a memorable statement. In a city of big buildings, it more than holds its own.

But a factory is more than a statement, and this mill were unusual in another way. Inside, it’s laid out very much along up-to-date lines for 1838, with rows of iron columns well spaced to accommodate machines for spinning linen yarn. In addition, as a single-storey building, it can be top lit, so Bonomi, or perhaps the engineer with whom he worked, John Combe, specified row upon row of glazed domes set in vaults, an brilliant and original way to spread natural light on to the factory floor beneath. In a final bravura touch, grass was grown on the roof, and a flock of sheep ranged across it, stepping between the domes and cropping the greenery to keep it short. This too is a functional feature – the grass roof helped maintain the humidity that was beneficial to flax-working, keeping the thread supple – and the sheep helped maintain the grass. As sheep don’t take to climbing stairs, a hydraulic lift was installed to get the creatures up to their aerial grazing grounds. Add to this steam heating and baths for the workers, and you have the model of a 19th-century functional mill, albeit in an ancient Egyptian package.

‘You couldn’t make it up,’ as they say. But Bonomi, Combe, and Marshall did make it up, all 18 Egyptian columns and 66 glass domes and what was, when it was built, the largest room in Europe. So the mill was much admired, but it was never as successful as Marshall hoped. A slump in textile prices, together with a period of poor management and poorer industrial relations, saw the business decline and the mill was sublet in the 1870s. Empty and fragile now, it remains a memorial to the optimism and flair of its creators and the city as a whole, a place I’ve called Gigantic Leeds.

Sunday, September 22, 2019


Gigantic Leeds (2)

My second gigantic and over-the-top building in Leeds is the Corn Exchange, another enormous structure by Cuthbert Brodrick and, like the Town Hall, a design that won a competition. Brodrick based it in the Halle au Blé in Paris, a domed circular building that had already inspired a major structure in London, the Coal Exchange by John Bunning, a masterpiece that John Betjeman tried unsuccessfully to save from demolition in the 20th century. Brodrick’s Leeds building, though, is elliptical with three semicircular protrusions that mark the entrances. While the Halle au Blé had a classical design with quite plain detailing, the Corn Exchange in Leeds is probably closer to baroque, with its gigantic size, its varying curves, and the monumental treatment of its masonry.

The exterior is of sandstone ashlar and the masonry is imposing, if not almost overwhelming in its finish. Most of the blocks are rusticated and carved to form diamonds pointing outwards; decoration includes swags and paterae; the clock is surrounded by garlands. The identifying inscription, by contrast, is in a dead plain sans serif letterform that seems to mean business.

And this was also, when it was originally completed in the 1863, a highly practical, businesslike building, housing a ring of offices for the corn factors around the perimeter and a large open market space accommodating stands for the factors in the centre. A balcony running around the walls half way up gives access to a further collection of offices, and above that is the vast dome, its structure largely visible from within and its great sweep dominated by two openings – a huge oval window that forms part of Brodrick’s design and an additional window like a vast curving slit, that is a later modification and adds another touch of eccentricity to this highly original building.

Since the Corn Exchange ceased to be used for trading in grain in the 1980s, it has undergone two restorations to attempt to adapt it for retail use. On the face of it, the result seems successful. The rings of offices convert easily to small shops without destroying the integrity of the building, and the open areas lend themselves well to café or restaurant use. However, the trading areas seemed very quiet when I visited and I do hope they weather the current difficult time for retailing in Britain. Brodrick’s building deserves to survive and deserves to be used.

Sunday, September 15, 2019


Gigantic Leeds (1)

Visiting Leeds recently, I found the experience fascinating, and in a way overwhelming. Some of the civic buildings are so large, they’re almost impossible to take in, and are difficult even to cram into the confines of a camera viewfinder. This phenomenon is not unusual in the large cities of northern England, the ones that saw their greatest expansion in the 19th century, but Leeds seems to take the effect to extremes. It’s a place I’ll have to return to, but for now, I’d like to record my impressions of a couple of the city’s most vast and remarkable structures – yes, for once on the English Buildings blog, after the telephone boxes and public lavatories, some truly grand and commanding architecture, structures obvious to the eye and compelling to the attention.

In 1852, a competition was announced for a new town hall building for the centre of Leeds. The demands were extraordinary: a public hall with standing room for 8,000 people, function rooms, reception rooms, a large suite of municipal offices. The whole caboodle was supposed to cost a mere £35,000, and just £200 was offered as the prize for the winning design. So much for so little: the job looked like a poisoned chalice and not many bothered to enter the competition. Charles Barry, who was hired to pick a winner chose the entry from Cuthbert Brodrick, a young unknown architect from Hull.

Brodrick didn’t have much experience, but the burghers of Leeds were impressed by his proposal – a vast complex surrounded by giant classical columns and set on a high plinth. In planning such an important building, the authorities might have insisted that Brodrick work with a more experienced architect, but they accepted him alone and merely asked for some modifications to the design, including the addition of a landmark tower, for which they undertook to provide a few more thousand pounds.

As the new building began to rise, it became clear that Leeds had chosen well. Photographs (imagine me, dear reader, jammed into a doorway opposite in an attempt to stand far enough away to get the whole thing in the frame, and straining to hold the camera high in order to avoid distorting all the columns out of the vertical) do not do it justice and cannot prepare one for the reality. It is enormous. The giant order – perhaps inspired by examples in France, perhaps by Vanbrugh’s giant columns in his country houses – dwarf passers-by, street furniture, double-decker buses. Even visitors from Bradford, which had recently acquired its own large Town Hall, or Liverpool, where St George’s Hall was monumental but smaller, might be impressed. The tower is more or less in proportion with the whole, unified with it by its own order of columns, and topped (after various suggestions by Brodrick) with a baroque eight-sided dome. The whole thing made contemporaries’ jaws drop, and has a similar effect today.

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On the story of this building and its architect, see Derek Linstrum, Towers and Colonnades: The Architecture of Cuthbert Brodrick (Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, 1999)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Avoncroft, Worcestershire

Plain, simple, and solid

Before I leave the subject of telephone boxes, a recent visit to the excellent Avoncroft outdoor museum in Worcestershire reminded me that I have never featured an example of the first standard telephone kiosk, the design that became known as the K1. This is in part because K1s are rare: the survivors are mostly in museums – and they are baffling because there are variations in the design from one box to another.

Before the 1920s, telephone boxes were not standardised at all. Telephone services were provided by various local companies, who adopted their own designs for kiosks. But in 1912 the General Post Office took over most of these companies (Hull in Yorkshire was a notable exception*) and soon looked for a standard design. Kiosk No 1 (later known simply as the K1), a plain, simple, solid box on a square plan with a pyramidal roof, was the result, and was introduced in 1923. Some K1s were made of wood and some had concrete walls, metal glazing bars, and a wooden door. Some of the variations in appearance were linked with this difference in materials – the concrete boxes, for example, have a different pattern of glazing. Some were also given a roof sign saying ‘Public telephone’, which concealed the top of the pyramid roof and its finial.

This example at Avoncroft, part of the National Telephone Kiosk Collection,† which is housed there, is a concrete K1, painted in the combination of grey and red that was usual at the time. The design was simple, but not much liked visually. At Eastbourne, the local authority even insisted that the boxes on the sea front should have thatched roofs! K1s were therefore superseded when a design competition of 1924 produced Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s popular K2 design, which is most people’s favourite telephone box. We have to be grateful to Avoncroft for giving less illustrious but historically important kiosks a home.§

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* My mother, who was born in Hull, told me with a certain puzzled pride that the telephone system in her home town was run by an independent company, and that the telephone boxes on Hull’s streets were painted cream, to mark this difference. They still are. Yorkshire: another country, it sometimes feels like, and in one corner of it they do things differently there.

† K1s, ‘Vermillion giants’, AA boxes, even a lovely Morris Minor telephone engineer’s van – they have it all in the National Telephone Kiosk Collection.

§ I am indebted to Gavin Stamp, Telephone Boxes (Chatto & Windus, 1989) for information about the history of these useful, interesting, and tiny buildings.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bath, Somerset

The red box ten years on

I can hardly believe that it was ten years ago that I blogged about the Gallery on the Green in Settle, Yorkshire, an admirable example of finding a new use for one of the redundant red telephone boxes that used to abound in Britain and are no longer as common as they were. The gallery, which launched itself as ‘probably the smallest art gallery in the world’ is just one example of this creative repurposing, and there are now many more.*

And just as well for people like me, who admire these fine bits of British design, because the numbers of red boxes have continued to go down. There were once 70,000 red boxes on Britain’s streets. There are now only 10,000 of the famous classic boxes, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott,† left, plus a further 20,000 public phone boxes of other designs. Only about 30,000 calls are made per year from all of these 30,000 boxes, so more will vanish. But a scheme allows local councils to ‘adopt’ a redundant box if they can find a new use for it. A number of the boxes in my local area (the Cotswolds) now house defibrillators. Others are miniature galleries, book-swapping facilities, or even small businesses (there’s one in London where smartphone screens are repaired which I pass from time to time). In Cheltenham the local museum took over a couple of adjacent boxes for a while, although these now seem to be empty again. My photograph shows one of several boxes used as planters that I recently saw in Bath, another clever reuse in which, back in July, red geraniums were blending pleasingly with the paintwork of the box itself.

Most of these conversions are of the familiar K6 design of telephone kiosk. The earlier and slightly larger K2 boxes, which are scarcer, represent the original successful version of Scott’s design so are doubly precious; these are all listed and so will survive. Many of the K6s are likely to be removed in this age of mobile telephones, unless more new uses are found. I think their total removal would be a shame as Scott's is a beautiful design and such a recognisable part of the British scene, in both town and country. So I hope that as many red boxes as possible will be repurposed, and that those who adopt them continue to look after them, keeping their shiny red paintwork both shiny and red.

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* There is a good article about reusing red boxes in The Guardian, here. I suppose purists might object to the reuse as planters, given that it involves alterations such as removing the glass. But better this than the scrapyard.

† Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is also famous for his work on the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool (still happily with us), Bankside Power Station (in large part preserved thanks to its conversion to Tate Modern), and Battersea Power Station (which has fared less well, but is currently being redeveloped).